The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Tuesday, September 11, 2001

 

Pettitte Power

I'm no Roger Clemens fan. I hated the trade which exiled David Wells to Toronto, and have booed many a Rocket fizzle at Yankee Stadium. I argued with my friends until I was nearly blue in the face over the Mike Piazza bat incident during last year's World Series.

I've come around on Rajah this season. I don't really like the man very much, at least to the extent that his personality has seeped through the beat reports and press conferences. But I do enjoy his byproducts. For starters, there's the 19-1 thing--I have a standing policy that anybody who does that for my team is my New Best Friend.

Then there's the Red Sox factor. Knowing that Roger is likely bound for a sixth Cy Young award (the third in what Boston GM Dan Duquette assumed would be "the twilight of his career") while the Sox bleed to death at the madman Duquette's hand--priceless. As is the shocked look on the Sox fans' faces.

But the real beneficiaries are the other Yankee pitchers who have taken to Clemens' fitness regimen and seen their own results improve--Andy Pettitte and Mike Stanton. Both have increased their stamina through better conditioning and added several miles per hour to their fastballs; Pettitte reportedly by 4 or 5 mph. On Sunday, Pettitte reversed a personal four-game slide by dominating the Red Sox, and in doing so marked the first time all season the Yanks' big four starters had won back-to-back-to-back-to-back. He credited a pep-talk from Clemens aimed at raising his level of concentration to the reversal of his fortunes. Whatever it was, it worked, as Pettitte dominated the Sox, beating them for the fourth time this season.

Pettitte, who turned 29 in June, came into this season having won an even 100 games in his career. He is a classic example of what Bill James called (in his 1984 Baseball Abstract) the "Tommy John family of pitchers," meaning not that he is a candidate for ligament replacement surgery but that he's a pitcher who exhibits the following characteristics, as did John and several others:

1. they are left-handed
2. they are control-type pitchers
3. they cut off the running game very well
4. they receive excellent double-play support
5. they allow moderate to low totals of home runs, lower than normal for a control pitcher
6. they are able to win while allowing an unusually high number of hits per game
7. their won-loss records tend to be very team dependent, often more exaggerated than their teams'--that is, a higher winning percentage than a winning team's or lower than a losing team's

Basically, Tommy John-family pitchers put the ball in play a lot; they give up a lot of hits, but erase a substantial portion of them via DPs and by shutting down the running game, and they don't give up many HRs either. They're not as flashy as your Randy Johnsons or Pedro Martinezes, but it's a pretty decent model for success.

Pettitte meets all of these criteria, though his strikeout rate is a higher than most in the Tommy John family (TJ struck out 4.29 per 9 innings; Pettitte is at 6.19):

• He's allowed only 11 SB all year, with 5 caught. Over the course of his career, he's allowed 0.53 steals per nine innings, at a 64% success rate; for comparison's sake (and since I don't have the time to run the numbers for every year back to 1995), this year the major league rate of steals per 9 is 0.64 and the success rate is 68%.

• He's currently tied for fourth in AL in the number of double plays turned behind him, and his rate of 1.0 double-plays per 9, while slightly below his career average (1.11) is still well above the current major league average (0.76).

• His career home run rate (0.72 per 9) and his season rate (0.62) are both significantly lower than the current major league average (1.14).

• His level of 9.49 hits per 9 innings is higher than the major league average of 9.14. He's never allowed less than one hit per inning pitched.

• His winning percentage (.625) is higher than his team's this year (.601), and has been over the course of his career (.642 vs. .595).

But Pettitte has undergone a transformation this year into more of a power pitcher. He's working more efficiently and more effectively, controlling the strike zone better, striking out more while walking fewer.
            IP/GS   H/9   BB/9   K/9  K/BB  P/IP    G/F

1995-2000 6.56 9.41 3.29 6.01 1.83 16.1 1.82
2001 6.77 10.01 1.71 7.40 4.33 15.4 1.53
I used 1997-2000 data for IP/GS, since I didn't have the data to weed out Pettitte's relief appearances before then and he's done nothing but start in that span. P/IP is pitches thrown per inning; G/F is his groundball-to-flyball ratio. The rest you should be familiar with.

Basically Pettitte is lasting longer while putting the ball in play less--a good idea given the Yanks' questionable defense. The 2001 numbers would be even more favorable if they didn't include his recent dip, which saw him get hit hard in four straight starts (24 IP, 43 H, 23 ER). He's giving up slightly more hits per inning this season, but overall, his number of baserunners per 9 has dropped, from 12.7 to 11.7. And his K/BB ratio is almost two and a half times better than before. THAT is an improvement.

As is Pettitte's consistency. Twenty-two of Pettitte's 28 starts (79%) have been Quality Starts (traditionally defined as pitching six or more innings and allowing three or fewer earned runs; I expand this slightly by counting 8 innings with 4 earned runs as Quality). Only 4 of his starts (14%) have been Disaster Starts (as many or more runs as innings pitched; I lop off partial innings so that a 5.2 inning start with 5 runs counts, figuring that help from the bullpen probably played a part in preventing further disaster). Last year, in 32 starts using the same definitions, he had only 18 Quality Starts (56%) and 8 Disasters (25%). Another welcome improvement.

One of the interesting things that James noted about the Tommy John family of pitchers is that many of them don't peak until their thirties. But Pettitte's already achieved a great deal before reaching 30 and now he's starting to morph into a power pitcher. He may break out of the Tommy John mode yet. But since power pitchers traditionally last longer than control pitchers, that might not be such a bad thing. Either way, the Yanks have a very solid pitcher on their hands, and it wouldn't be surprising at all to see him continue to develop into one of the game's best.

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